The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
The pattern of “To His Coy Mistress” is, as befitting an argument, roughly syllogistic in form: If there were enough time, the speaker and his mistress could go on courting forever, but time is fast disappearing. Therefore, they must squeeze their joys into today; there is no time to be coy or aloof.
In the first section of the poem, the speaker delineates exactly how he would use the vast expanse of time stretching from before Noah’s flood to the end of time itself. There would be time to sit and think, time to stroll in leisurely fashion along the banks of the Ganges casually looking for treasure, and time to write and sing long love lyrics while reclining by the slow tidewater of the Humber. He begins a catalog of his mistress’ attributes, a commonplace of Renaissance poetry, but then adds his own variation, in playful hyperbole assigning long periods of years to admire and praise eyes, forehead, and breasts. Then, as if anticipating the urgency of the next section of the poem, he breaks off his list and quickly assigns “thirty thousand to the rest.” The entire process culminates in the heart, the center not only of the body but also of her humanity, her personhood. Flattery is a natural part of the art of seduction, so there could well be a hidden agenda in the speaker’s declaration that his mistress’ beauty is worth at least thirty thousand years of praise, inch by inch, and there could be no better use of his time than to bestow it...
(The entire section is 539 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
In addition to Andrew Marvell’s use of the syllogistic form, his use of contrast, and the repetition of the monosyllabic “Now” to give the last section a feeling of urgency, much of the power of the poem is also achieved through Marvell’s use of imagery. The exotic, distant, flowing Ganges is contrasted with the down-to-earth, hometown, tidal Humber. The rich and majestic ruby, which is to gems what the sun is to the planets and the king to the rest of society, is contrasted with the lowly, pastoral love complaint. “Vegetable” love refers to the vegetative, or growing, capacity of the soul of plants or animals, which must take time to reach normal growth and would need much longer to grow “Vaster than empires.” The most celebrated image of the poem, “Time’s wingéd chariot,” combines the image of speed with harassment and gains even more power by being contrasted with the sterility of “Deserts” and the stark stillness of “vast eternity.” The propriety of the image of devouring worms in a love poem (as well as the possible allusion to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” in “quaint honor”) has been questioned, but the worms certainly work well in the creation of a sense of urgency in the poem. So also does the contrast in the images of eating: the eager appetite of the “amorous birds of prey” pitted against the slow, trapped, defeated helplessness of being devoured, slow bite by slow bite, in the lazy-but-powerful jaws of time.
There is a declaration of unity and even mutuality, should the hoped-for culmination of his pleading be reached, in the image of their sweetness and their strength (not her...
(The entire section is 675 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry Series)
Bradbrook, M. C., and M. G. Lloyd Thomas. Andrew Marvell. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1940. Places “To His Coy Mistress” among Marvell’s other poems of desire, with useful comparisons to the poet’s mower songs and “The Definition of Love.”
Brooks, Cleanth. “Andrew Marvell: Puritan Austerity with Classical Grace.” In Poetic Traditions of the English Renaissance, edited by Maynard Mack and George deForest Lord. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Discussion of “To His Coy Mistress” and “The Garden” as companion poems offering complementary points of view.
Eliot, T. S. “Andrew Marvell.” In Selected Essays. New ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950. A famous piece of modern literary criticism, Eliot’s essay is credited with recovering Marvell from his status as a minor metaphysical poet. Eliot examines the poem for its ironic wit and incongruous imagery.
Legouis, Pierre. Andrew Marvell: Poet, Puritan, Patriot. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1968. Clear overview of “Marvell’s most erotic poem,” citing not only classical and later examples of carpe diem verse but also Marvell’s departures in tone and persona.
Marvell, Andrew. Andrew Marvell: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Edited by Frank Kermode and Keith Walker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Textual and manuscript notes to the poem, explaining the sources of various images and allusions, as well as comparing specific lines to those of Marvell’s contemporaries or poetic forbears.